EUGENE, Ore. — One by one they approached her at the end of her final lap around a global stage.
One by one they shook her hand, patted her on the back, all of them grasping the significance of the moment, bowing to royalty at the end of her reign.
And then Allyson Felix turned in a circle, one final sweeping look back around Hayward Field as if she was retracing her hold on the sport, reaching out to all she had touched.
The rivals who had chased her first through their childhood dreams and then down tracks in Monaco and Zurich and Olympic Games and World Championships.
The men, Olympic and World champions, she inspired as boys, the kids who didn’t want to be like Mike but instead wanted to run like Allyson.
The mothers and grandmothers and daughters Felix gave voice to.
All of them following her through one last glorious night.
The opening night of the World Championships at Hayward Field on Friday, the first Worlds ever held on U.S. soil, was a celebration of Felix and an athlete who has shined in this meet like no other.
With a bronze medal in the mixed 4×400-meter relay, Felix in her final race in a major competition further solidified her status as the most decorated athlete in World Championships history.
“This is really special for me,” Felix said. “This is more than I ever imagined. I’ve had a lot of high moments, low moments and everything in between, and it’s really special to end here tonight. It was really touching. All day long, it’s been emotional. To have an impact on this sport is really special, it means a lot to me.”
Felix, competing in this meet for the ninth time, clinched her 19th Worlds medal. Thirteen of those medals have been gold.
By comparison, Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is second on the Worlds all-time list for both gold and total medals at nine and 11.
With a women’s 4×400 gold and 400 bronze at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Felix surpassed Carl Lewis for the most Olympic medals for a Team USA track and field athlete – 11, seven of them gold.
Only Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi has won more Olympic track medals (12). Four of the Flying Finn’s medals, however, came in either individual or team cross country competitions.
But Felix’s appeal was always more than just medals.
“Her legacy is just showing everyone you can do what you want to do,” said Gabby Thomas, an Olympic medalist sprinter. “She hasn’t let anything stop her.”
U.S. heptathlete Anna Hall told Felix this week that she had a poster of her on her bedroom wall growing up.
“And on my sister’s wall,” Hall continued. “My family talked about you all the time. You’re definitely a household name.”
Felix was the poster girl for the sport for much of her career. Her likeness stretched across much of the back of old Hayward Field’s iconic East Grandstand during the 2016 Olympic Trials, a celebration courtesy of Nike, her then sponsor, of a woman who loomed larger than life over her sport for most of this century.
She used that high profile to give voice to the voiceless even if it meant taking on the most powerful force in American track and field – Nike.
Her May 2019 op-ed in the New York Times criticizing Nike’s maternity policies triggered a national conversation on the topic.
Felix, long one of the most recognizable female athletes sponsored by Nike, detailed in the piece how the Beaverton, Oregon company offered her a 70% pay cut during December 2017 contract negotiations. Felix, who was pregnant at the time, also said Nike failed to put clear guarantees in the contract for maternity protections she had requested.
“I’ve been one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes,” Felix wrote. “If I can’t secure maternity protections, who can?”
Felix later told Time magazine that her “stomach dropped” when Nike asked her to participate in a female empowerment advertisement for the company during the maternity protections negotiations.
“I was like, this is beyond disrespectful and tone deaf,” she said.
“We’re working to change industry standards,” Felix said. “I think that is going to be a long battle. I just think that moms are deserving of funding and support. There’s a lot of work to do. But hopefully, I’ve brought some attention to those things. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Nike made maternity policy changes after the Felix op-ed, including guaranteeing athletes’ salaries and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy. But by then Felix had left Nike and signed an apparel deal with Athleta. She later launched a shoe line called Saysh.
“She was going up against Nike,” said Noah Lyles, the reigning World champion at 200. “That’s one person against a corporation. I don’t think some people understand how big Nike has an influence over the U.S. Like that is a firm grasp and for one woman, one Black woman to go up against that and speak for what they believe is right, that in itself, to even have the courage to try is something that I feel the young people should be watching for years to come.”
Felix also became an advocate for women’s health issues after she was diagnosed in 2018 the 32nd week of pregnancy with preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and damage to the liver and kidney and that can be fatal to both mother and the fetus. Doctors told Felix that both she and her baby were at risk. Felix underwent an emergency C-section. Camryn weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces at birth.
This week she admitted being frustrated by what she viewed as a series of recent legislative and judicial setbacks to women’s rights, most notably the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, even as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX
“It definitely has been challenging,” Felix said. “You know you feel like you’re celebrating and another moment you’re taking a step backwards. I hope that we see amazing displays of the strength of women and just a holistic approach to that. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a unique place from where they came from and I think we’re going to see a lot of really great examples of that all over the place.”
But she was also excited about competing in a major international championship meet in the U.S. for the first time and a place that has become almost a second home to her. Felix made five Olympic teams at Hayward Field.
“I feel like I’ve grown up here,” she said.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Felix said Thursday. “We’re excited that (the world) gets to come here and see what we see and experience the Hayward magic.
“I know in my entire career I’ve always been envious of that athlete in the home country, that applause. So I’m just really excited for all the U.S. athletes to be able to get that experience but to be able to bring our amazing sport to Eugene as well.”
But Friday afternoon the significance of the moment caught up with her.
“It was an emotional day. There was a moment earlier in the day. I was in the hotel and I just kind of broke down. Wes came and talked to me,” she said, referring to her brother Wes Felix. “It’s heavy. When I got on the track, I went into race mode. But there were so many messages, just hearing from people, and I think I just never really thought of my impact on the sport. It definitely touched me today.”
And when Felix, running the relay’s second leg, opened up a large lead on the backstretch Friday night, a loud roar chasing her, it seemed like she and the Hayward magic might combine for one more golden moment.
Felix with a 50.15-second split held the lead into the homestretch before the Dominican Republic’s Marileidy Paulino edged slightly ahead of her at the exchange. Vernon Norwood opened up another large U.S. lead on the third leg only to see anchor Kennedy Simon get passed in the race’s final meters, first by the Dominican Republic’s Floradliza Cofil and then Femke Bol of the Netherlands. The Dominicans finished in a world-leading 3 minutes, 9.82 seconds with the Dutch clocking 3:09.90 and Team USA at 3:10.16.
“It’s been a challenging year,” Felix said. “I really wanted to enjoy this final season. I found it was hard to balance that. I found that’s not really who I am to step back a little bit, but I think I was kind of forced to just be grateful and reflect on everything.
“I’m a competitor. I would have been great to walk away with gold. But I’m definitely at the point where it’s bigger than that, so I’m not disappointed at all tonight. I have gratitude. It was fun to run with these guys tonight. I’m proud. I’m proud of a bronze medal.
“It was very special to be able to run in front of a home crowd for my last race. It was so cool. My daughter was in the stands. It was a night I will cherish. I’ve had such good memories. I know it is time and these guys will carry it on into the future. I am at peace stepping into this next stage and have tremendous gratitude for this sport.”
The feeling was mutual.
In launching her shoe company last year, Felix wrote on social media “Keep going and keep speaking up, even if your voice shakes.”
Friday night she lingered on the first turn for a few more moments after the race, an American flag wrapped around her, a final global medal awaiting her. A group of young girls and older women rushed toward the track and yelled out to her in voices she had given them.”